My Interview with a Marine Biologist
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Colin Skinner
My Interview with
a Marine Biologist
During my trek, I talked to Dr. Scott Baker, a marine biologist. Dr. Baker grew up in Alabama, but he now heads a laboratory researching marine mammals of the oceans around New Zealand. He took some time to talk to me and answer questions that students sent to me by e-mail.

Which marine mammals do you study?
Our team mainly studies whales, dolphins, sea lions, and fur seals — all of which are found around New Zealand.

What is a typical day for you?
I teach university students and work with students in my laboratory — supervising various projects. Once or twice a year I go out into the field, to Tonga or the Auckland Islands, to study whales, but most of the time my graduate students get to go out and have the fun!

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Do you get to swim with the marine mammals?
I've swum with dolphins and whales a number of times. It's beautiful to see them underwater, but often it disturbs them. Even with us swimming underwater we only see a small part of their natural behavior.

Do you ever have to keep an animal in captivity to study it?
Sometimes we do study animals that are in captivity, but when we do this we have to consider the safety, health, and problems of confining animals.

Why did you choose to study marine mammals in New Zealand?
New Zealand has great access to the ocean and many interesting species and populations of marine mammals, particularly the humpback and right whales. It's one of the best places in the world to carry out this work.

What is your favorite marine mammal and why?
My favorites are humpback whales. They show all sorts of behavior and are found throughout the world.

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Which marine mammal is the friendliest? Which is least friendly?
Right whales and bottlenose dolphins are the friendliest. The harbor porpoise in Alaska are very shy, so I guess you could say they're the least friendly.

Which marine mammal is the smartest?
That's hard to judge, but bottlenose dolphins are at least as "smart" as most apes!

What's the closest you've ever come to a killer whale or shark? Were you scared?
I've been within five feet of killer whales. I didn't feel frightened, just excited. I tend to stay away from sharks.

Do you track specific animals so you know you're studying the same ones?
Yes, we use photos to identify individual humpback whales, right whales, and bottlenose dolphins. Part of our research is to follow them, and see what they do and where they end up.

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Do you become attached to any of the animals that you study?
Yes, definitely. There are a few whales that I have watched over many years that I am particularly fond of, but at the same time I respect that they have little or no interest in me.

Have you ever had to hurt one of the animals you were studying?
I have accidentally bumped whales with a small boat and I use a biopsy dart to collect skin tissue samples, but I don't think either of these activities do more than startle the whales.

Why did you become a marine biologist?
I have always enjoyed the sea and like the challenge of learning about something so mysterious!

Are marine mammals in New Zealand endangered? If so, why? What can people do to help?
The small Hector's dolphin and Hooker's sea lion are endangered species, threatened by human activities. The biggest problem is that they are caught in fishing nets. Government policy now restricts fishing in areas where these animals are known to be. People can help by supporting government policies and by making contributions to research aimed at protecting these species.

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